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DIGITAL IDENTITY: The promises & perils of existing online

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Picture1Digital Identity refers to the persona an individual presents across the Internet. 
More and more people are becoming active users of technology, contributing rather than just consuming online content. This is a powerful opportunity, but if they lack adequate media literacies, managing their online selves may be challenging.

What does it mean to exist online and what opportunities and dangers this may entail? In spring 2015 I gave two relevant talks at IATEFL Manchester and TESOL Greece. Here’s a brief interview to British Council Manchester online and here’s a live-streamed talk by TESOL Greece.

WHAT IS DIGITAL IDENTITY

Digital Identity is the sum of all digitally available information about an individual, irrespective of its degree of validity, its form or its accessibility (Williams, 2010). It comprises everything that can be found about us; from the content we create or share to what other people post about us; from the profiles we make to the conversations we have. It is also shaped by what can be inferred about us; our likes and searches, our purchases, our friends lists say a lot about us. And as the bits of data grow and combine, a complete picture of us emerges. A picture that is becoming increasingly accurate and traceable, due to the rapid growth of available data and the big data capacities to process it (Rose et al, 2012).

Does this sound scary? Well, it might but fear has never been a source of security. Instead, understanding what it really means to exist online and what opportunities and dangers it entails, makes it all worthwhile.

THE PROMISES

Participatory cultures & self-expression

Computer Chip

Existing online gives people more opportunities for self-expression. Rather than passively consuming content, we can create, curate and share; we can experiment with art, photography, poetry; we can adopt different writing styles to express our opinions and concerns. According to Stern (2007) all this gives people the opportunity to “have a voice”, an opportunity that may be rarer offline. Connecting with like-minded people and forming communities of relevance to our niche interests, can also lead to greater knowledge and richer intellectual exchanges. Personally, I would feel isolated without my online knowledge communities. Whether I have met these people face-to-face or not, I learn from and with them on a regular basis and they never stop to inspire me to become a better educator.

Self-reflection

Online expression is more conscious and intentional because we have more time to think. I agree with Diane Boyd (2007, 2014) who says that Digital Identities “have to write themselves into being”. We write all the time when blogging, commenting, updating our statuses, tweeting, texting, chatting. Why is this important? James et al (2009:26) suggest that our need to write our digital identities into existence can encourage reflection, which can in turn “nurture greater awareness of one’s roles and responsibilities to oneself, to others, and to one’s community’. All these, of course, are potential opportunities and depend on how seriously we take our online expression. Just posting nonsense, doesn’t make us reflective 😉

Feedback

Either positive or negative, feedback helps us to develop and grow. In the past, opportunities to get feedback were determined by physical space. Personally, I could only get feedback from those within easy reach such as family, friends or colleagues. Would you agree that getting immediate feedback is now just a tweet or blog away? This is a massive opportunity especially if feedback is constructive  and genuine.

Personal brand
Your personal brand is all about who you are and is in many ways synonymous with your reputation. It refers to the way other people see you as a teacher, blogger, trainer or representative of an idea or organization. What do you wish your online communities to associate you with when they think of your name? Do you know that employers will google you before they even invite you to an interview? Online spaces allow you to build and cultivate your brand BUT establishing a good reputation online is not easy. It involves much more than simply getting your name out there. Watch this space for practical tips on this.

THE PERILS

The performative element

digital identity photo
Photo by easegill

People perform roles all the time; we are teachers, colleagues, employees, wives, husbands so our behaviour is essentially shaped by the roles we perform; however, forming digital identities with an eye toward attracting or entertaining a digital audience, may undermine the opportunities mentioned above (James et al, 2009). When people share in order to be liked or appreciated, self-promotion may become more valued or urgent than learning or reflecting, and this can be potentially harmful. In brief, it’s OK when we share happy moments or professional achievements with our connections but where do we draw the line between sharing and showing off?

 

Tethering & Digital Distractions 

Tethering means connecting one device to another, but Turkle (2008) coined the term to describe the nearly constant sharing of information and connectivity to others online. More and more people are becoming so increasingly attached to their networks that they need to continuously signal their current locations, activities and moods. This may set the stage for an over-reliance on (positive) feedback, which can undercuPicture4t autonomy and create fragmented identities (James et al 2009). And as multitasking is an abiding myth, it may also distract them from what they are doing be it attending a lecture or having an interpersonal, face to face interaction.

As a teacher, I find managing digital distractions in class increasingly challenging. Whether we embrace new technologies wholeheartedly or not, let’s face it, digital distractions can interfere with the learning experience. This does not mean that technology should or can be banned from the classroom. Mobile devices are here to stay whether they are supported by the teacher or secretly used by the students. The debate, therefore, should not be on whether we allow them but on how we can prevent them from becoming a distraction.  As part of my Digital Citizenship & Literacy research project, I’m currently working on this area and will be presenting around Europe over the next months.

Digital Identity as the currency of the digital market

It is common knowledge (or at least it should be) that all the “free” services that we enjoy online, are not really free. We pay with our own currency aka our personal information. This can be used for good purposes, but it can also ‘be unscrupulously traded and abused’ (Saxby, 2011).

It is beyond the scope of this post to elaborate on the implications of this, but I want to believe that not all implications are negative. Consumers will “spend” their personal data when the deals are right; and as we (the consumers) are becoming increasingly aware of this, stakeholders will inevitably need to face the challenge of establishing a trusted flow of this data.


Though research is still emerging with diverse understandings about the promises and perils of existing online, there are some important questions we should be asking: How can we make the most of online opportunities without harming our reputation and credibility as educators and professionals? More importantly, what are the pedagogical implications of these promises and perils and how should they inform our teaching practices and curricula?

References

Boyd, D. (2007). Why Youth (Heart) Social Networking Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life. In Youth, Identity and Digital Media, ed. D. Buckingham, 119–142. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Boyd, D. (2014). It’s Complicated. The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

James, C., Davies, K., Flores, A., Francis, J., Pettingill, L., Rundle, M. Gardner, H. (2009). Young People, Ethics, and New Digital Media. A Synthesis from the GoodPlay Project. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Last accessed 20/3/15 http://tinyurl.com/petoc2c

Rose, J., Rober, B., Rehse, O. (2012). The Value of Our Digital Identity. The Boston Consulting Group, Liberty Global Policy Series. Last accessed 20/3/15 http://www.libertyglobal.com/PDF/public-policy/The-Value-of-Our-Digital-Identity.pdf

Saxby, S. (2011). in Digital Identity: An Emergent Legal Concept. Sullivan, D. South Australia: University of Adelaide Press

Stern, S. (2007). “Producing Sites, Exploring Identities: Youth Online Authorship.” In Youth, Identity and Digital Media, ed. D. Buckingham, 95–117. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Turkle, S. (2008). “Always-on/Always-on-You: The Tethered Self.” In Handbook of Mobile Communications and Social Change, ed. J. Katz, 121– 138. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Williams, S. A., Fleming, S. C., Lundqvist, K. O. and Parslow, P. N. (2010). Understanding your digital identity. Learning Exchange, 1 (1). Last accessed 20/3/15  http://centaur.reading.ac.uk/17011/1/Williams_2010_Understanding_DI.pdf

 

 

 

 

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7 Steps to Student PLNs

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Network (in glorious Helvetica)Photo Credit: Alexander Baxevanis via Compfight

One of my goals for 2014 is to apply what I have been planning for quite some time now: encourage my students to develop their own PLNs.

In brief, a PLN (Personal Learning Network) is “an informal learning network that consists of the people a learner interacts with and derives knowledge from in a personal learning environment”. Interactions can take place online and the learner does not have to meet those people in person.

My own PLN consists of like-minded educators from all around the world; they are the people I learn from and with on a daily basis. They are those who share with me and inspire me to experiment, reflect and become a better educator. Whether I have met them in person or not, these people are now part of my life. I’m not isolated anymore; I’m part of a community of lifelong learners.

How would it be like if students developed their own PLNs in areas of interest or talent? Not only would they be encouraged to learn independently but they would also have access to information and communities impossible to reach from within classroom walls. After all, as 21st century teachers, we are no longer the sole providers of knowledge; however, we can be the ones who will show them the way to opportunities; those who will provide them with skills to learn from and with a global network of people.

Below are 7 steps that I consider essential to this endeavour. The list is by no means exhaustive and you are invited to make your own contributions through a comment or blogpost 🙂

Step 1: Reflect on how you developed your own PLN

Our experience in developing and maintaining a PLN should not be taken for granted. Reflect on that. Think about the steps that you took, the mistakes that you made and on what you have learned on the way. If you don’t have a PLN, it’s never too late to create one. You will feel much more confident to teach something that you have personal experience in. Read what Shelly Terrell and Vicky Loras suggest and contact me in case you need further help 🙂

Step 2: Teach students Digital Citizenship skills

To participate in online communities effectively, students will need to be equipped with skills to use technology responsibly, ethically and safely. They should be polite and tolerant with people; they should be critical thinkers, able to challenge and filter a vast array of information found online; they should also be aware of the dangers they might encounter and be able to deal with them effectively. Even if your students are aware of these concepts, reminding them is always a good idea.

Step 3: Give it time

As you will know from your own experience, PLNs cannot be developed overnight; they are not static either. They grow as we grow and can slightly change when our needs and interests change as well. Give your students time to build and maintain their PLNs. It might work well as a year round project for instance but you will need to check students’ progress regularly.

Step 4: Encourage active participation

Finding and joining a community of like-minded people might be highly important but PLNs cannot be maintained if students are just consumers of what other people share. They will need to contribute back by taking part in discussions, by creating and sharing their own content. Teach students to be creators. They can start with comments or questions and gradually move on to writing blog posts or creating videos. Anything that will add value to other people’s learning will be appreciated and welcome.

Step 5: Find tools that will suit your students’ needs

Twitter, Facebook groups or blogs can be great PLN platforms. Do your personal research and use the ones that address your students’ needs. You will also need to consider your students’ age. If you teach young learners, platforms like Edublogs or Edmodo might be more appropriate. Curation tools are also important. Teach them to curate and organise information and resources with tools such as diigo, Evernote or scoop.it.

Step 6: Don’t forget that PLNs are personal

The term itself suggests students need to personalise the learning experience and make decisions. Don’t impose networks and interests on them; instead, help them define their goals and motivations and make connections according to them. Personalisation can be achieved even with younger students who need to be supervised more closely; for instance, you can initiate collaboration with kids in other countries but let them have a say over who they want to work with.

Step 7: Act as a model

Last but not least, focus on modeling what learning looks like. Share your own learning and experiences. Tell them how you started your own PLN and how valuable it has been to you. Learn with them and from them. Invite them to teach you something; explore and discover new things together. Be part of their PLN and let them be part of yours.

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All things in eModeration: Moderating Class Blogs and Facebook Student Groups

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Once in a Blue Moon
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: saebaryo via Compfight


This post is a response to the TESOL Greece blog challenge on eModeration. It is primarily aimed at EFL teachers of young learners, teens and young adults but I hope teachers of other disciplines and age groups will find some areas of interest. It will try to answer the following questions:

  • What is moderation and why is it important?
  • What should we moderate in class blogs and Facebook student groups? 
  • What are the challenges involved and how can we deal effectively with them?

What is moderation?

In general terms, moderation is the process of eliminating or lessening extremes. It is used to ensure normality throughout the medium on which it is being conducted.

In computing terms, a moderator needs to:

  • monitor and often censor inappropriate comments and posts that are left for public display
  • keep users on topic
  • keep the discussion thread free of personal insults and derogatory comments.

Why moderating?

Merely creating an online community such as a class blog or a Facebook group does not necessarily lead to productive discussions or learning. Additionally, we should not assume that students, regardless of their age, are aware of concepts such as responsible online conduct and digital citizenship. What if their posts are not always appropriate? What about spam and flaming?

Consequently, the teacher’s role in moderating and facilitating purposeful discussions and contributions is vital. As a moderator you will have to take informed decisions about:

  • when a post or comment should be approved.
  • how to organise online discussions and motivate students to participate in them.
  • how to help students feel part of a learning community.
  • how to develop their digital literacy skills’ so that moderation can gradually become less frequent.

 Class Blogs

 

Dream classroom
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Charles Wiriawan via Compfight


The degree and criteria against which to evaluate what should or shouldn’t be moderated might depend on various factors such as the age of your students or whether they have been introduced to eSafety and Digital Citizenship skills. In the early stages, while students should be given freedom over the ideas they express, they should also be aware that you are the administrator of the blog and thus posts and comments should be first approved by you. This is to ensure that only appropriate content is posted on your blog and that a high degree of etiquette is maintained. And as your blog will probably be public, you should know that practically anyone on the web can visit and leave a comment. Would you like your students to read inappropriate comments or be exposed to potentially suspicious links contained in them? To my experience, this rarely happens but I strongly believe moderation is of vital importance to protect your online community from the potential risk.

For class blogs I would suggest the following:

  • Make sure your students are aware of the rules and guidelines of the blog so that they know what is or isn’t appropriate. If possible, involve them in the decision making. It will encourage greater ownership and motivation to respect the rules.
  • Consistency is important. Decide in advance whether posts or comments that contain accuracy mistakes will be accepted or not. I personally think that rejecting such content can be extremely discouraging for students but it clearly depends on the primary aims of your blog. I publish comments even if they contain mistakes to reinforce students’ communication skills and sense of community. As far as posts are concerned, I adopt a process writing approach where students submit their first draft and then revise their work according to my feedback. You need to make your own decisions as a class and stick to them.
  • Decide in advance whether or not you are going to moderate YLs & teens’ personal pictures. While there is not a consensus decision on this, you should know that according to Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) for example, you need the parents’ consent to post a picture of an under 13 year-old-child. My piece of advice? Students of all ages love posting their pictures on class blogs and might feel disappointed to see them turned down. I generally advise students to attach creative commons licensed pictures but when someone attaches a picture of themselves, I use skitch to blur the face even when the parents don’t mind their kid’s picture posted online.  
  • Be aware of the links students might share on posts or comments. I think that not allowing students to share links would not reflect reality since we all do on a regular basis. Instead, teach them that not all links are innocent and that they should check before they share with their classmates. In any case, moderate before you post. Quite recently, a student of mine left the following comment on our blog:
A comment from our class blog
A comment on our class blog

 

Although the student is a responsible internet user, I thought it was essential that I first ensure the link was a safe one and that it did not direct students to illegal game downloads. 

 

  • As I have already written on a previous post, teaching commenting skills is necessary if we are to transform our blog from a static space to an interactive community. According to Morris (2011) quality comments are:

1      Relevant to the post.

2      Complementing the writer, asking a question or adding further information to the post.

3      Proofread by the students for correct spelling, grammar and punctuation.

As a moderator, you might also need to provide timely intervention when a discussion goes off topic or when an argument should be resolved. Sometimes students might transfer an argument that started in class to the blog especially when they feel active parts of this online community. Your role as a moderator and facilitator can be vital in such cases.

Facebook student groups

Facebook Expert
Photo Credit: mkhmarketing via Compfight

Unlike blogs, Facebook groups do not allow administrators to approve comments before they are published. All you can do is delete posts and comments or even remove members in case things get out of hand. For this reason, I would suggest that teachers create a Facebook group only when they have introduced their students to concepts such as appropriate online behaviour and responsible digital citizenship. Having said that, I do believe Facebook can be a great learning platform if used effectively. Our students are there anyway so why not make learning more approachable to them? I totally appreciate protected platforms such as Edmodo or Schoology which might be essential in certain cases. However, adopting a constant risk-averse approach can be counterproductive and unrealistic. Students need to be given the opportunity to take risks in real contexts otherwise they won’t be able to manage risk effectively.

Most of what I mentioned about blogging applies to Facebook as well but below are some tips special to student Facebook groups:

  • Create a closed group for your students so that you can ensure only accepted members can access and post there.
  • Promote students who are willing and involved to administrators. It will take the burden off you and they will be given a great learning opportunity. You will also encourage a sense of ownership and belonging to the group.
  • Do not become Facebook friends with your students unless of course you do not post personal stuff on your account. Posting a family picture, teasing a friend online or checking in at a club might be things you wouldn’t like your students to know. it can be hard to decline requests but it will make your life so much easier. There are a few tips I can share on that so I intend to write a follow up post 🙂
  • Do not delete posts or comments just because you or other students don’t agree with some opinions expressed. On the contrary, encourage debate and use it as an opportunity to show students that freedom of speech is vital as long as people justify their opinions politely. 
  • If students spam or make inappropriate contributions I think you have every right to delete their posts or comments. After all, you are there to ensure students’ security and learning. Talk to the student in private and try to understand the reasons behind their actions. Sometimes teenagers or young adults just like to break the rules. I also think that, without identifying the student, you should use the incident as a topic for a class discussion. Instead of giving tedious lectures on inappropriate online behaviour, encourage students to comment on the incident and see for themselves why spamming or flaming is inappropriate.
  • As already mentioned, use this online community to promote responsible and wise social media use; turn mistakes into learning opportunities. I remember I once asked students to post a picture from their summer holiday and write something about it. We had already talked about privacy and digital footprint so I was surprised to see a picture of my 20-year-old student posing rather suggestively in her bikini. She was a nice girl and I’m sure she didn’t mean to provoke her classmates. After all, it is difficult to define the norms when young people are exposed to nude or semi-nude TV images all the time. The good thing about the incident was that it proved to be a great topic for a class discussion on digital identities which encouraged the girl to remove the picture herself.

A final piece of advice

Like - Thumb Up
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: SalFalko via Compfight

Moderation involves students’ participation to online communities and this is something that only you can encourage no matter how powerful a tool is. If participation is optional not all students are likely to contribute. On the other hand, if it is mandatory or marked it might feel like another task that needs to be done. It would be better to integrate it into your course so that students perceive it as an essential part of their learning. For example, you might start a discussion in class that could be continued online; or instead of asking them to write an essay, you could post a relevant video, ask them to discuss it with classmates online and then write something on this.

 

 

 

How do you moderate your students’ class blogs or Facebook groups? Would you add or remove anything from the above tips? I would be very interested to read your views 🙂